Gators advance to NCAA lacrosse tournament quarterfinals

The UF lacrosse team celebrates its NCAA Tournament second-round win Sunday over Colorado at Dizney Stadium. [Alan Youngblood/Gainesville Sun]

[Update 9:42 p.m., 5-13] For five minutes Sunday it looked as if Florida would once again see its lacrosse season end prematurely.

But after a troublesome opening stretch for the No. 6-seeded Gators, one that saw Colorado open up an early five-goal lead, they found a way to reverse their fortune.

Florida responded to the scoring barrage from the Buffaloes with eight consecutive goals of its own en route to defeating Colorado 13-9 in the NCAA Tournament second-round match at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.

“This is what this team has worked for. All their hard work has come to fruition. It’s not over yet,” UF coach Amanda O’Leary said. “I’m just so proud of them. They came in, they prepared, they followed the game plan. It’s just a great group to coach and I’m honored to be part of this whole process with them.”

Colorado needed just 76 seconds to take an early two-goal lead, effectively zapping the early excitement from the home crowd.

Thanks in part to a pair of goals from Carly Cox, the Buffaloes (14-6) built a five-goal lead in nearly as many minutes, forcing UF to re-group and take a timeout.

Whatever was said in the huddle by O’Leary and the Gators (17-3) had an instant impact, as freshman Grace Haus would get Florida on the scoreboard first with a goal off of a free position shot less than two minutes later. The ensuing seven unanswered goals were provided in part by the Pirreca sisters, as Sydney or Shayna either assisted on or scored the goals that gave Florida a 8-5 lead heading into the halftime break.

“I think defensively we were a little off. I think once we started picking up our marks and actually helping and playing our team defense, I thought it turned around immediately,” O’Leary said. “But that five-goal differential was a little nerve-wracking.”

After a nearly 25-minute scoring drought, the Buffaloes struck first to open the second half, but Florida made sure to negate Colorado’s momentum by responding quickly on a goal from Shayna Pirreca.

Colorado would pull the score back to 9-8 before the Gators responded with back-to-back strikes to preserve the lead for the remainder of the match.

The senior Pirreca, who was recently drafted No. 6 overall by the Upstate Pride in the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League, finished the contest with four goals while junior Sydney Pirreca added three goals to go along with a pair of assists.

“I think that they had a really good game plan against us,” Shayna Pirreca said. “It’s kind of the joke of my family, my parents say ‘Oh I know if Sydney scores, Shayna’s going to score right after’ so I think we really do feed off of each other. We get really excited when the other one scores, and I think that helps us individually as well.”

And UF junior goalkeeper Haley Hicklen finished with 11 saves on 28 shots by the Buffaloes. Florida held Colorado to just four goals over the final 54 minutes.

“Haley, her play was huge,” O’Leary said. “I thought she did a great job in possession of the ball. Quick hands, great saves. Couldn’t ask for much more than what she gave us today.”

Florida looks to keep its postseason dreams alive when it travels to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to face No. 3-seeded James Madison (19-1) in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Saturday. James Madison knocked off Virginia, 15-12, Sunday.

“We’ve never played them, so it’s actually very interesting for us,” O’Leary said of James Madison. “We’ll start watching film (as soon as possible).”